- Author: Michael Hsu
Community nutrition and health advisor builds bridges across cultures in Tulare, Kings, Fresno and Madera counties
At a young age, Irene Padasas – UC Cooperative Extension community nutrition and health advisor for Tulare, Kings, Fresno and Madera counties – saw first-hand how environmental health conditions can impact a family's choices.
When she was in fourth grade, her parents moved their family from bustling Manila, capital of the Philippines, to a small town on a distant island. Her younger brother, who had been hospitalized at age 3 for a year due to complications from meningitis, had to re-learn how to walk and talk.
Padasas' mother hoped that leaving the more polluted urban environment would benefit his long road of rehabilitation. “The decision was made to ensure a better quality of life for my brother,” Padasas said. “So my parents decided to just move to the countryside.”
The family settled in a beach town in largely rural Aklan province, near the center of the Philippine archipelago.
“There are advantages living in a place like that, where you're close to nature; there's not much traffic; the community is very tight,” Padasas said. “You feel like you're part of this small community where everybody is looking after each other.”
Contributing to that sense of community – and cultivating close relationships to ensure the health and well-being of all – are just some of the reasons why Padasas chose her line of work in Cooperative Extension.
Padasas oversees the delivery of two federal nutrition programs in her region – CalFresh Healthy Living, University of California and the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program. She develops, provides and evaluates Extension programs in partnership with the diverse populations of the Central Valley, including a variety of Latino, Mexican Indigenous and Asian communities.
Despite differences in culture and background, Padasas works to find common ground and build bridges – often through a joke and a laugh.
“Humor is such a big part of Filipino culture; with the challenges that I encountered in life, humor was so important in getting through and bouncing back,” she said. “That part of my culture is an important aspect of me to build relationships and genuine connections and introduce the work that we do; they don't see us as a ‘researcher from University of California,' they see us just like them, just like anybody else in the community.”
Growing up near both the beach and farmland in Aklan, Padasas feels an affinity for the agricultural landscapes and lifestyles in the San Joaquin Valley. She remembers feeding her family's chickens and pigs and playing among the neighbors' cows and water buffalo.
“I feel like whenever I drive to different places here in the Central Valley, it reminds me a lot of my childhood back in the day,” she said.
Nevertheless, Padasas misses the food in the Philippines – especially the seafood that she grew up eating, succulent prawns and enormous fish found nowhere in California.
“We would wait by the shore for whatever the fishermen would sell – it's really fresh fish, literally fresh from the boat,” she recalled.
Mealtimes were central in the childhood of Padasas and her siblings, who both live in the Philippines and help care for their parents; her brother is an engineer and her older sister is a teacher. Food was and remains a focal point for sharing and connecting, within their household and across the culture.
“When I was growing up, my parents made sure we were spending time as a family, eating together during dinner and sharing special meals on weekends,” Padasas said.
Chance encounter leads to an Extension career
Padasas returned to the Manila metro area for college, at the University of the Philippines Dilliman, where she earned a bachelor's degree in special education. After working as a special ed teacher for about seven years, she went to graduate school at Ateneo de Manila University for her master's in developmental psychology.
Originally intending to pursue a career as a child psychologist, Padasas said her path changed when she met Maria de Guzman, a University of Nebraska professor and Ateneo de Manila alumna, who returned to her alma mater to present her research on “yayas” – live-in caregivers for children in the Philippines.
Intrigued by that study, Padasas leaped at the opportunity to pursue a Ph.D. with de Guzman at Nebraska, where she would write her doctoral dissertation on social capital – such as personal relationships and networks – as predictors of college success for underrepresented minority students.
It was also de Guzman, herself an Extension specialist, who guided Padasas on that career track.
“I knew at that time I wanted to work in Extension, but it was a vague concept to me because in the Philippines we don't have Extension as part of the university,” Padasas explained. “Dr. de Guzman was the one who really introduced me to Extension.”
During graduate school in Nebraska, Padasas gained valuable experience working with a diverse range of ethnic minorities and refugees, including Latinos, Filipinos, Yazidis and Congolese. She especially enjoyed working with children and teens – a favorite aspect of her work that continues to this day. Padasas said that, when given the opportunity to discuss her academic background, she mentions her educational experience to young people.
“I always make sure to talk about my work as a research scientist – to encourage these kids, especially those from underrepresented minority groups, to see themselves in my shoes, to show them that: ‘You could also become like me, a person of color, a researcher, and that's not an impossible path for you,'” Padasas said.
That academic track – and her entire life's journey – have prepared Padasas well for her current role, within an organization that spans the state of California and all its diverse communities.
“I think that's the beauty of the work that we do at UC ANR,” she said. “We are provided with so many opportunities to connect and to create impact for so many people across different populations.”/h3>/h3>
- Author: Saoimanu Sope
The first time Chris Wong ever laid eyes on Romanesco broccoli was while he was selling it at a farmers market in Davis. Although the broccoli was marketed as locally sourced and organically grown, Wong remembers reading the label on the produce box: Holtville, California – 15 minutes from Wong's hometown, located more than 600 miles south of Davis.
Wong, CalFresh Healthy Living, UC Cooperative Extension community education supervisor for Imperial County, grew up in the community he now serves. In his role, he identifies opportunities to improve community health whether it be increasing access to healthy food, making neighborhoods more conducive for exercise, or simply educating the public.
But it was his college experience at UC Davis that catapulted his career focused on food systems and community health. Because he lived in UC Davis' Student Co-op Housing, he found himself surrounded by peers studying food science or agriculture.
“I was heavily influenced by the things they spoke about,” he said, adding that he was inspired to get involved with the local farmers market in Davis. “I started working at a farmers market, selling local, organic produce at very high prices to very privileged people in Davis, including students.”
He was troubled that the produce was transported from Imperial County – from towns like Brawley and Holtville, where Wong grew up – and yet he had never seen some of the products he was selling in Davis.
After spending a few years going back and forth between Davis and his hometown, Wong moved back home to Calexico fulltime in 2015. Eager to locate the nearest farmers market after his experience in Davis, he learned that the nearest one was in a city north of Calexico.
A grant provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture helped a Calexico based non-profit organization establish a farmers market in a neighboring community of El Centro, identified as a food desert, yet the farmers market was in a different city.
“It wasn't the same as the one in Davis. They didn't even have produce, just food and craft vendors,” he said. Wong felt motivated to make a change.
“I asked the coordinators of that farmers market if I could volunteer with them. I asked them about the process of establishing a farmers market. Then I started sending Facebook messages to city council members and other community leaders and was able to get a meeting with them,” Wong said.
A fresh start for his hometown
On Oct. 6, 2013, Wong and a few others launched the first-ever farmer's market in Calexico. Wong described opening day as “almost a failure” because of the lack of available produce. “It was really tough; we had a lot of build up for it. We had a distributor who came to provide produce, but it took a while before we got produce vendors to the site,” he said.
Even though Wong's hometown is also home to 500,000 acres of farmland, many of the farms in the Imperial Valley are commercial or industrial farms. This means that the crops have already been contracted to end up at stores like Costco before they're even planted.
“We even got the Romanesco broccoli to be sold in Calexico,” said Wong.
For six years, Calexico had a farmers market that community members benefitted from. When he wasn't securing vendors, Wong was attending community alliance meetings to promote the market and its effort to bring healthy, fresh options to the kitchen table. In 2019, the market shut down after the City of Calexico's Community Services Department Director retired and the department restructured.
Determined to succeed
During his first year at UC Davis, Wong, an anthropology major at the time, struggled as a student and felt ill-prepared to manage the intense coursework that lay ahead. “I just couldn't get the right grades or write good papers,” he said. Before the spring semester of his first year concluded, Wong was academically dismissed from UC Davis.
“There's a joke in my hometown that people say to students who go off to college,” said Wong. “Before you leave, people will say ‘see you next year' because a lot of us don't finish college and return home.”
Returning home was never an option for Wong. He was determined to stay the course, noting that he couldn't return home with student debt and no degree. To get himself back on track, Wong took summer courses at UC Davis and enrolled in remedial English classes at Sacramento City College. In total, he spent an entire school year and two summers making up for his academic shortcomings.
Wong's efforts at Sacramento City College paid off. He was able to reenroll at UC Davis and graduated with a bachelor's degree in Spanish Literature with a minor in Latin American Hemispheric Studies.
Remembering his roots
There's no doubting that the California/Mexican border holds a special place in Wong's heart. His father, of Chinese descent, and his mother met in Mexicali, where Wong's mother is from, and got married against their parents' will.
“They got married in secret and had me in secret because my Chinese grandmother did not approve of the relationship,” said Wong, describing her as “traditional.”
Growing up, Wong remained connected to his Mexican heritage but not so much his Chinese culture. Wong, along with his three younger siblings, are all fluent in Spanish but if you speak to him in Cantonese, like his paternal grandmother does, he'd only be able to make out a few words and phrases.
Wong's father grew up speaking Chinese in his home in Mexicali. When he would attend school in Calexico, however, most students spoke Spanish. The constant shift in language confused Wong's father, causing him to flunk the third grade. To ensure his children didn't experience the same challenges, Wong's father purposefully withheld from teaching Wong or his siblings Cantonese.
Wong's ability to speak Spanish, the language of the community he serves, has empowered him to connect with residents on a deeper level. Of the many things that Wong has accomplished, he is most proud to be giving back to the community that raised him. In 2017, he joined UC ANR as a UC Cooperative Extension community education specialist for Imperial County before becoming a community education supervisor in 2022.
Despite the setbacks that could have easily derailed Wong, he remains steadfast and is always looking for ways to improve his community's health. “I'm eternally grateful for the opportunity to serve my home community as a representative of the UC,” Wong said. “Visiting my old classrooms and teachers to provide their current students with quality educational experiences I may not have had growing up, brings me the utmost joy.”
- Author: Saoimanu Sope
Max Fairbee spent his high school years moving around Southern California to cities like Covina, La Verne, Pomona and Apple Valley, hoping that his mother would find stability in the next place they'd call “home.” After attending five different high schools, Fairbee decided to take the California High School Proficiency Exam and earned his diploma that way.
Eventually, he accepted a job at Tower Records in West Covina, working there for six years. “Until my current job, Tower Records was the longest position at a single company I ever held,” said Fairbee. “That's where I began to discover myself and understand diversity and acceptance.”
Fairbee loved the arts and wanted to find a career where he could utilize creativity and share his appreciation of the arts. Attending Orange Coast College and Platt College, he spent time learning typography, photography, fine art and graphic art.
Unsure of what he wanted to do next and struggling to secure employment as a graphic artist, Fairbee took a job at the North Coast Co-Op, a natural foods grocery store in Eureka, after moving to Humboldt County in 2009. Fairbee worked at the co-op for over three years and while he worked in various positions, his most valuable role was conducting food demonstrations.
“My inclination for community service started in that food co-op,” said Fairbee. “I learned about where food comes from, what goes into your food, food sustainability, and all of the lights in my head went off.”
Fairbee began working as a mental health technician, teaching life skills to adults with different levels of learning abilities. “I was teaching them how to do things, like, managing medication and doing laundry,” Fairbee said. “At the same time, I was developing their appreciation for art and music by hosting workshops.”
Teaching becomes a path forward
Channeling his appreciation for healthy living and love for teaching, Fairbee now works in Alameda County, developing and delivering nutrition education classes for older adults, almost half from the Chinese and Vietnamese communities in Oakland and the surrounding area. He teaches them ways to achieve and sustain healthy lifestyles through the Eat Healthy Be Active Community Workshops.
The lessons are centered on understanding what is healthy and why. One of the skills Fairbee teaches his students is how to read a nutrition facts label. At some sites, he also incorporates gardening education using edible plants.
“I told myself that I would never take a job where I didn't go home and like to talk about my work,” Fairbee said.
Naturally, Fairbee went on to describe how proud he feels about his work with older adults in the Bay Area. In mid-April, Fairbee celebrated his recent class of graduates who are all over the age of 60. Students were highly engaged in the lessons about healthy living and Fairbee had 23 students complete the course.
“There's a lot of language barriers, so, I rely on interpreters a lot,” Fairbee explained. “You would think that after six weeks, and with a language barrier you'd have fewer students complete a course like this. But no, not my students.”
Remaining physically active is a recurring topic and activity throughout the six-week course, according to Fairbee, who noticed an association between physical activity and happiness.
“I had a 98-year-old student who invited me to her birthday party at the Oakland Zoo one time,” Fairbee recalled. “Apparently she did that every year and she invited all her friends.”
Community service is ‘paying it forward'
Fairbee said that the friendships he has cultivated over the years have played a significant role in his desire to give back. Born in Indiana, Fairbee said that growing up, he always knew he needed to come to California.
“I watched a lot of Brady Brunch growing up. For some reason, they had this perfect life and I wanted that,” he said. Eventually, Fairbee's parents divorced, and his mother moved to Southern California and took him with her when he was 13.
“When my mom brought me to California, she saved my life,” said Fairbee.
He didn't know why, but he knew that he couldn't stay in that Indiana community. Perhaps it was the blatant racism or xenophobia that he observed within his own family or others. Either way, Fairbee was adamant about moving westward.
“I'm very different from my family,” said Fairbee. “For one, I'm gay. But also, we just have different beliefs in how to treat people,” he explained.
Fairbee said that the people who made his life in California full of “magical moments” were friends and their families. He remembered celebrating Thanksgiving with a friend, and how much more fun and special it was compared to the holiday spent with his own family.
“Over the years, I noticed that since I moved to California in the '80s, important holidays and celebrations were made special because of my friends,” he said.
The opportunity to spread love and kindness is what keeps Fairbee motivated. “Community service comes from the kindness of others. That's what my friends did for me and the work I do now is my way of paying it forward,” he said.
Fairbee says that he cannot describe the feeling of community service, but that when you have done it once or twice, there's no greater reward.
“There's like a million thank you's and at the end of the day, you feel full. And not from food, but of love,” he said. “Honestly, I'll be doing this work until I retire. I can't see myself going anywhere else now.”